Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
With the dazzling first shot of No Bears, Jafar Panahi creates a world that captures the mode of Iranian film and the plight of an Iranian filmmaker. In a long, sustained take, we survey a street, which appears to be in a Turkish border city. The camera drifts along, taking in different storefronts, a couple of strolling musicians mooching money from passers-by, and finally a man and a woman who appear to be planning an escape that involves fake passports and considerable danger. The woman storms away, the camera follows her, and then swings back to find the man alone on the sidewalk, turning and walking away.
Intriguing, so far, but then we hear “Cut!” from offscreen, and a cheerful assistant director slides into view, looking straight into the camera. He asks how the shot was. The director’s voice answers him, and it turns out the voice that said “cut” belongs to Jafar Panahi, who is sitting in a room on the other side of the border in Iran, watching the shot on his laptop—but that still isn’t the end of the shot, because as Panahi gives his criticisms (the actors were, in truth, overacting a little), we back out of Panahi’s laptop, where, it seems, we’ve been watching this opening shot all along. Thus we find the director in his humble rented apartment, going about his daily business after the wi-fi craps out and he loses his signal to the film shoot. (It isn’t stated in No Bears, but the real Jafar Panahi has been forbidden from making movies in Iran for years, which is presumably why he is directing the movie-within-the-movie this way.)
The mode of Iranian film I mentioned above is the relentless investigation of the places where fiction and nonfiction overlap and become confused. The plight of the Iranian filmmaker is Panahi’s own, of course, which No Bears explores, and which has only gotten graver for this artist since the movie was released, with Panahi’s latest arrest in July 2022 for protesting the detention of filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad, and his declaration this past week of a hunger strike (as I’m writing this it has been announced that he has been released from jail). No Bears has many shades and moods, from delightful rural comedy to the most serious kind of social concern. And it has the kind of open ending, somehow very stirring, that qualifies as another hallmark of classical Iranian cinema.
There’s a moment in No Bears when Panahi—that is, the quasi-fictional filmmaker onscreen—is out on a smuggler’s trail at night, and his companion points out that he’s just stepped over into Turkey. Panahi draws back, as though he burned his foot. The moment has some of the power of the absurd, indistinguishable borderline at the end of Grand Illusion. It also recalls a scene in Panahi’s This Is Not a Film (2011), his first movie after being confined to house arrest and barred from filmmaking by Iranian authorities, in which Panahi, as himself, steps outside of his house at night to see some fireworks, a small, bold gesture by a free man.
I reprint my review of This Is Not a Film, published by The Herald in 2012, below.
This Is Not a Film
As far as I know, This Is Not a Film is the first movie ever smuggled out of its country on a thumb drive that has ever received national distribution.
It probably didn’t take you too many guesses to deduce that the country was Iran. Along with squelching other kinds of freedoms, Iran has been hard lately on its world-class filmmakers, especially Jafar Panahi, director of the powerful Offside and The Circle. Panahi was arrested in 2010 for perceived offenses against the state; he has been sentenced to six years imprisonment and a 20-year ban from filmmaking, a situation that has brought the condemnation of the world community, to no avail.
While he was waiting for his sentence to be announced, Panahi (under what appears to be house arrest at the time) collaborated with documentary filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb to make This Is Not a Film. It is, hands down, the singular movie of the year. What you see is Panahi, in his comfortable Tehran apartment, talking to his lawyer on the phone, inviting Mirtahmasb over to make a movie, and enacting some scenes from a banned screenplay.
At first you think: well, this is courageous, defying the filmmaking ban. Then the movie becomes unexpectedly witty, as Panahi’s day takes different turns and as his mood changes (eventually he gives up on re-staging the banned film, as various complications arise—such as the attention he pays to his pet iguana).
The title seems sort of clever, and then Panahi explains that if he works as a filmmaker, he will add to his jail sentence. But he doesn’t see how reading a script or talking about his life should violate this edict. Which is why the movie can only be called This Is Not a Film.
As the 75 minutes go along, This Is Not a Film becomes strangely moving to experience, including Panahi’s encounter with an engaging young man, a student, who happens to be collecting the garbage for the building. Even setting a foot outside could cause problems for the filmmaker, but it’s tempting to go out for a moment, if only to see the fireworks going off in the city—either as a celebration or a protest, it’s not clear which.
The movie isn’t a raw documentary; Panahi and Mirtahmasb took a few days to shoot it, although it is set during a single day. It’s a crafted piece of work, and packs a sneaky punch at the end. The end credits, too: the usual acknowledgements are filled not by names, but by a series of asterisks where the names should be. Sometimes making a movie is a matter of life and death, and this film—which is not a film—reminds us of that.
February 3, 2023
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.